The Men's Movement

by Laura Bryannan

June 1990

If you were fortunate enough to catch PBS's recent airings of "A Gathering of Men," you'll understand why attention to Robert Bly and the Mythopoetic Men's Movement is increasing by leaps and bounds. If you didn't see it, keep your eyes on the TV Guide, for I'm sure this wonderful interview of Bly by Bill Moyers will air again sometime soon, considering the interest it has generated. This program is one of the most thought-provoking, strengthening, and hope-inspiring presentations I have ever witnessed. It's a must for men and women alike, and can help both sexes understand themselves and each other better.

The Men's Movement is the theme of the May/June Family Therapy Networker, and reading it might be a good way to familiarize yourself with this issue while you're waiting for Channel 11 to get on the ball and re-air "A Gathering of Men."

The cover story, "The Birth of a Movement," by R. Todd Erkel, p. 26, gives a good overview. He introduces Bly, an award winning poet and student of mythology and Jungian psychology, and then presents his basic premise as follows: "Bly's analysis of the deep confusion and alienation experienced by modern-day men goes back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. It was then, Bly says, as men moved off the land and into the factories, that fathers began separating--physically and emotionally--from their families. Those most affected...were young boys, who lost not only the emotional security of the father, but the presence and participation of other, older men in their lives...Over time, men lost touch with what Bly calls 'the male mode of feeling'...'something that gives the son a certain confidence, an awareness, a knowledge of what it is to be male.'"

Because mothers continued to stay home with the children, women have not experienced this kind of loss in the way men have. Girls stay close to their mother throughout their childhood and adolescence, and receive from her, what Bly calls, the "spiritual food" of her presence that shows them how to be a woman. He notes, however, that as women increasingly join the work force and leave the home, we may begin to see similar kinds of damage in women that now exists in men.

Men, Bly maintains, have experienced this mass exodus of the father (and older men) from their day-to-day lives as a great wounding. There is longing, grief and anger at this loss, which gets buried deep within the psyche. The ramifications of this wounding leads men "to distrust older men and to ask too much from the women in their lives." Men have been taught to cut themselves off from their emotions and to seek fulfillment through work and status.

During the 1960's and 70's, a "new" type of male model emerged that was, in certain ways, a positive step away from the military and corporate warrior model of previous generations. Bly notes, "These men learned to be receptive, but it wasn't enough to carry their marriages...In every relationship, something fierce is needed once in a while; both the man and the woman need to have it. The male was now able to say, 'I can feel your pain, and I consider your life as important as mine, and I will take care of you and comfort you.' But he could not say what he wanted, and stick by it--that was a different matter."

Bly believes that one of the major problems in the Western industrialized world is that there is no ritualized movement from childhood into adulthood. In "A Gathering of Men" he discusses how a woman can do a good job bringing up a baby boy through adolescence--and many single mothers are struggling to do just that--but she cannot initiate her boy into manhood without sacrificing her own femininity. This is a job only the older men can accomplish, and he feels that men in the West are reneging on this responsibility.

Without the participation of the older men, boys are forced to turn to each other for initiation--increasing the allure of gangs, fraternity "animal" houses, etc. Or, as they get older, they turn to the women in their lives. But again, as the article observes, "...while most men learned nurturing qualities and vulnerability from...women, those feelings never fully take until men see them exhibited in an older man...This is what older males can uniquely do...The empathize with the younger boy and nurture him. The grown man can never fully do that for others--his wife or his children-- unless it's been modeled for him [by a man]."

Bly observes that, generally, there are three types of men who come to his workshops: The first group has experienced severe pain or grief in their lives, often through physical or sexual abuse, and seek to gain some understanding of these emotions in order to heal them. The second group of men cannot get in touch with their life force and spontaneity; they find it hard to express anger and feel closed off from "the fire within." The third group of men are what one might call "terminal adolescents," who need to learn to let go of their fears of manhood and responsibility.

In Bly's men's-only workshops and retreats, he and his co- facilitators use story, shamanic work, drumming, dance, music and discussion to explore men's unique approach to emotional experience. Participants are often surprised to discover feelings they didn't know they possessed, once into the "sacred ritual space" of the workshop. As to why this is so, one commented, "I think there's less of the shame and embarrassment men might feel in appearing 'weak' in front of women. It's also possible to let go of a lot of the posturing men normally do when women are present. There's a sense of homecoming and familiarity, a breakdown of isolation and loneliness."

One interesting aside to this burgeoning awakening of Men's Consciousness is the reaction of feminists and pro-feminist men. At its most balanced, they simply caution men not to forget or reject their mother's or women's contributions to their lives in the midst of their excited explorations into the "final frontier" of their male psyches.

Other feminist commentators seem to reject any possibility that men can get together by themselves and not turn into "good old boys," who are capable of doing nothing more than belching, scratching and women-bashing. They accept the truth that it is beneficial for women to gather without men, but they want to deny that right to men. As one feminist writer stated, "I think these men ought to know what strings they are pulling and what these drum beats are evoking for some men...For centuries, the ideal, the successful model of masculinity was always the warrior. Whether they mean it or not, I think they are glorifying that essential blood-thirsting tradition."

Another condemnation is put forth by Judy Goldsmith, past president of the National Organization for Women. She says, "What concerns me about their thesis is that as soon as we maintain an essential-- not minor and not physical--but essential difference between the two sexes, there is always the potential for that to be interpreted in language that reads better/worse, higher/lower, superior/inferior. And we see that...what ends up being devalued is everything labeled as feminine."

In certain respects, I can empathize with the fears these commentators express. After seeing "A Gathering of Men" for the first time, I had a profound realization of the experiences, feelings and ways of being that I will never encounter--the realms of universal energy that will forever be off-limits to me. Why? Because I am a woman, and nothing will change that (for this lifetime anyway), and I admit I felt a little "left out" over the whole matter.

But then I remembered that we women also have our own areas of universal expertise and jurisdiction that men can never know; however, some of us don't seem to be happy with that reality, or experience it as being "enough." I can see why feminists are not too pleased with men like Bly who are showing us, in no uncertain terms, that men and women are different in essential ways. Yes, that's scary! What will come of all this?

The Women's Movement has enabled women to break away from outworn and negative stereotypes and patterns. The emergence of Goddess Consciousness had enabled women to rejoice in their femininity, in all it's myriad forms, in ways we are only beginning to remember from eons ago. It has enabled us to come into our relationships with the world and with men strengthened and renewed.

How exciting that men are finally finding their way in this process also! They will go places that may seem alien and frightening to us should we try and peek in. But no, we can't go with them, and we can't presume to understand or judge it either. But I believe that they will return from their journey bringing new insights and gifts for us and the world.

We can't meet them in their sacred space, and they can't meet us in ours, but there's plenty of neutral ground out there and I, for one, am ready for the homecoming celebration!

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan